Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Octopus's Garden

Most of my travels are of the cultural (cities, museums, ruins, monuments, etc.) or outdoorsy (hiking, mountains, forests and national parks) kind. I don't really do "fun" stuff. Whilst in Sabah I decided to change that state of affairs. The seas of southeast Asia are home to some of the most pristine tropical coral reefs in the world. Snorkelling among them is my favourite thing to do whilst visiting beach destinations. But with snorkelling you are limited by your lungs to just the uppermost corals and only for as long as you can hold your breath. Obviously the glimpses you get of the myriad multi-coloured fish, urchins, invertebrates, polyps, nudibranches and other strangely-named organisms are only enough to pique your interest. To truly see the underwater world you need to go scuba diving.

All kitted up in my wetsuit, air tank and sundry other paraphernalia and about to roll back out of the boat (something I had always wanted to do). Diving is a truly incredible sensation and one I hope, for my wallet's sake, I don't get too addicted to.

Unfortunately scuba diving is not only pretty expensive, but you also first need to learn how to dive, since sinking under 15-odd metres of water can be potentially risky if you don't know what you're doing. Whilst in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah (or KK to its friends), I was lucky enough to meet Gonn on an excursion out into the jungle (more on that in a later post). She's a freelance dive instructor and when I voiced my interest in potentially learning how to dive by doing an open water dive course she offered to teach me for a "friend's" price. Since KK has its own little marine national park just off its coast the amount was reasonable, and realising that I may not have such a good opportunity again I threw caution to the wind and decided to take her up on her offer.

I was to find out that there is more to diving than just putting on an air tank and jumping in the water when, on the first day, Gonn handed me a thick manual and told me that I would be examined on its contents at the end of the course and that I would have to read the first chapter before even going near the water. I was glad to find that at least there were many pictures. But at least it was reassuring that they make you learn and understand the physics behind what you're doing, why you must do certain things, and what nasty things will happen to you if you don't.

Once the theory was digested, and the simple skills dispensed with in the shallow waters of the beach, it was time to properly don the mask, flippers, tank, regulator and BCD (a Buoyancy Control Device and your most important piece of kit after the air tank) and head into the deep blue. OK, it wasn't that deep at only 12m, but I didn't care as it opened up a whole new sensation to me. The feeling of effortlessly floating through the water, rising and falling simply by controlling how you breathe in an out, is probably the closest humans will ever get to the freedom of movement in three dimensions that flying animals are blessed with. But with diving you have the added bonus of slow motion so that you can closely observe the intricate marine life that is alien to us surface dwellers. Intricate corals, small, iridescent fish, gently swaying feeding tentacles that disappear in a flash as you approach, and soft anemones with their clownfish residents can all be inspected and scrutinised at leisure (which is certainly far harder to do with land animals which have an annoying tendency to scarper as soon as they hear you coming).

So, after three days of diving, revising and practising underwater manoevres I sat my final exams and am now a properly licensed, card-carrying diver. Not that I expect to do much of it on this trip as the cost is well out of my budget, but it is a good skill to have and who knows, I may just indulge myself once or twice along the way.


Bitan Photo said...

Nice! Well done on getting certified, and I hope for your sake and the blog's that you get underwater more than you seem to anticipate.

I share your trepidation about the costs of diving, but I think this is the year I go ahead and get a PADI license.

Erik said...

Definitely do it David, it's a unique sensation being so free underwater. definitely worth it.